Looking the Other Way?

President steps down at Rio Salado as report criticizes handling of sexual harassment complaints.

August 6, 2018
 
Chris Bustamante

The president of Rio Salado College announced his retirement on Thursday, effective on Saturday. Later the day he announced his departure, the Maricopa County Community College District of which Rio Salado is a part released a report that criticized the college for mishandling sexual harassment complaints. The community college is nationally known for its online education programs.

Chris Bustamante, the departing president, did not say if his retirement was a direct result of the report, but said that he was not asked to leave his position.

"Once I announced my retirement to the college on Thursday of last week, it was the district’s decision to release the report as a separate action," he wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

The district hired Jean Wilcox, a lawyer, to investigate three years of sexual harassment complaints and procedures at Rio Salado. The report contains a lot of conflicting reports on numerous complaints, revealing a lack of institutional memory or record of the sexual harassment complaints and who knew what, when.

"It is confusing for employees," Wilcox wrote. "Even though they have been through the online sexual harassment training program, they don’t know to whom (a named individual) they can go about sexual harassment concerns. Several complained to this investigator that they are not kept informed of the status of a complaint or an investigation. Others said they felt the accused harasser gets support from administration in preparing responses, but they are left on their own to figure out the processes and their rights."

In the report, Wilcox writes about a "common pattern of inaction" on the part of Sharon Koberna, a former dean at Rio Salado.

"Koberna did not seem to take sexual harassment complaints seriously," she wrote. "She said in her interview that women experiencing problems would have to file a complaint first before she would act on it. Koberna’s credibility is questionable."

One woman told Wilcox that she was afraid to report to Koberna. According to the report, Koberna refused to talk with Wilcox after the completion of the investigation into sexual harassment allegations against LeRodrick Terry, a former vice president who resigned in May after the internal investigation confirmed that he engaged in inappropriate behavior. She could not be reached for comment.

According to the report, Bustamante said that Koberna never told him about any sexual harassment complaints, but later said that she may have mentioned one instance to him, but he couldn't recall details.

In the report, Bustamante claimed he was unaware of allegations against Terry until 2017, however multiple witnesses said they had spoken to him about the matter in 2016. In light of this, Wilcox wrote that " … it is more likely than not that Bustamante was aware of Terry’s inappropriate behavior toward women in 2016 and failed to take effective action to prevent further incidents of sexual harassment by Terry."

In her conclusion, Wilcox criticized the college's attitudes toward sexual harassment procedures.

"The perception held by employees who were interviewed is that Rio HR and Rio administration do not take sexual harassment issues seriously. This perception is based largely on Sharon Koberna’s dismissive attitude toward sexual harassment concerns that were reported to her. There is also a belief that Koberna shared all of her knowledge about employee problems with Vice President Simmons and President Bustamante," she wrote.

She also concluded that "the allegation that the president had prior knowledge as early as March 2016 and failed to take effective action with regard to Terry is substantiated."

Bustamante issued the following statement about his departure.

"After serving in the Maricopa Community College District for over 26 years and with over 40 years working in public service in the State of Arizona, I am proud of my many meaningful contributions, alongside my many colleagues over the years. I would also state that any decisions I made as president were always made in the best interest of the college and its employees with the information and processes made available to me," he wrote in an email. "I feel confident now that the district has made appropriate changes to assist colleges and employees with improved processes, training, and reporting procedures, that these cases will be handled more effectively by the colleges and the district in the future."

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